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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

With a 'Tri' and a Dub 2 Cultures Share a Tub

How does "rub a dub dub, three men in a tub" sound in Russian? And why is the crooked man who walked a crooked mile such a delight, in its Russian form, to little Vita?


You have to have bicultural children to understand that one of the simplest bonds which straddles cultural diversity is the simple nursery rhyme. And as I continue looking for examples of Russia's indisputable cultural ascendancy over the decadent West -- a fashionable Russian pastime these days -- I can't help but notice that so much Anglo-Saxon children's lore is standard home-reading for Russian children, whereas their deprived Western brothers and sisters have never heard of Kolobok, the little pie that runs away and eventually gets eaten by a fox.


Russian children's multicultural superiority is entirely thanks to Samuil Marshak and Kornei Chukovsky, the two great translators of English poetry into Russian. What is particularly intriguing about their work, however, is the way some nursery rhymes translate immaculately whereas others don't quite hit the mark. Not even Marshak, for example, who is famous for his glorious rendition of Shakespeare's sonnets, could find quite the right Russian words for the gripping silliness of the "hey-diddle diddle," of cat and fiddle fame.


There is, on the other hand, a perfect Russian rendition of "rub a dub dub, three men in a tub" which relies on the Russian tri mudretsa (three wise men) where "tri" is both three and the homonym for "rub." And Vita, along with listening to both Humpty Dumpty and his successful Russian counterpart Shaltai Baltai, has also learned to love some all-but-forgotten English nursery rhymes which seem to have survived only in their Russian translations.


It's amazing how much time and creativity serious grownup poets spent on the nursery rhyme -- but then who was it, an English or a Russian writer, who pointed out that writing for children is as hard as writing for adults except that you have to write better?


However, these rhymes don't compete -- don't worry if you have Russian nannies doing "all the king's horses and all the king's men" in Russian. According to a learned tome on children's reading that we have just studied, there is no harm in different versions of a favorite theme -- even within one culture there will be numerous slightly different renditions of a well-loved story. Children respond to the reappearance of a familiar favorite in whatever its form. But it will be interesting, when we get on to "Alice in Wonderland" and "Winnie the Pooh," both much loved by generations of children who speak only Russian, to see which versions Vita comes to call her own.